The ancient concept of religion is one that has existed in every established human culture throughout history. All religious groups tend to center their belief system around the idea of an existing “God” or “gods” and a world beyond the one where we currently reside. Some of the major religions in modern times such as Judaism, Christianity, and Islam believe in one God and an arrangement of rules that dictate whether certain people will earn a place in the afterlife (Mark). These religions seem to suggest that no matter how difficult life may be, those who ‘do good’ by society’s standards will be ‘saved.’ German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche was one of the first major philosophers to attempt to contradict the idea of religion and a higher power. He believed that we should not make decisions in this world to appeal to another. That humankind is stronger and better than relying on religion for motivation (Pickett). Nietzsche concluded that our trust in such higher powers has resulted in a lack of happiness in our everyday lives. He maintained that it prohibits us from acting how we truly want. Friedrich Nietzsche’s most valuable contribution to the philosophical sub-discipline of metaphysics was his idea that God is dead.
What Nietzsche saw as he examined society was a cycle of self pity and guilt. He noticed a lack of happiness and satisfaction in many of the people around him. And he attributed this state of mind to what he believed was the lasting effects of religion, more specifically Christianity (Ideas). His statement “God is dead” was a response to almost all of the philosophers before him. Including Augustine, Anselm, Origen and Thomas Aquinas who claimed that God is a knowable thing. Nietzsche truly believed that mankind was strong enough to not have to rely on a higher power to gain the motivation to live (Class Notes). Nietzsche’s vision of metaphysics greatly contrasted all of his predecessors and therefore many people of his time developed strong opinions on his ideas. What they did not realize was Nietzsche’s futuristic outlook. Nietzsche was ahead of his time. He believed that a rise in Atheism was soon to come and attempted to comfort mankind with his idea that we can create our own individualistic views and discover our own meanings for life (The Gay Science). Nietzsche stated “God is dead; but given the way of men, there may still be caves for thousands of years in which his shadow will be shown.” (The Gay Science, 108) In his quote, Nietzsche explained that the switch to atheism would take time. He expressed that although he believed God had died, he understood that society would not believe that for quite some time. Following his death, Europe entered into an era of war. After World War I many citizens began to feel a hatred towards society and a sense of hopelessness. They began to separate themselves from religion and found little meaning in the lives they were living (Hendricks). It is almost as though Nietzsche predicted this shift. As a result of his life’s dedication to a quest for purpose without religion, Nietzsche lived quite a lonely life battling the truth he had discovered and the agony that comes with living in a godless world. Although, in his later works it is revealed that this discovery may have been the result of what he believes to be the greatest discovery in philosophy. (Anderson)
In his earlier years, Nietzsche expressed misery living in a godless world. He felt that humankind had no purpose and therefore life was meaningless. This ties in with his idea of nihilism which can be defined as believing life has no purpose because nothing is real and we live in an illusion of reality. In one of his earlier writings, Human, All Too Human he communicated the agony he discovered in nihilism when he stated, “But the tragic thing is that we can no longer believe those dogmas of religion and metaphysics, once we have the rigorous method of truth in our hearts and heads…Sorrow is knowledge: they who know the truth most must mourn the deepest o’er the fatal truth, the tree of knowledge is not that of life.” (Human, All Too Human, 109) Here Nietzsche explained that understanding the truth would not be easy. He recognized that the loss of incentive provided by a higher power could hinder many people from happiness. More specifically because religion is a phenomenon that has aided in human motivation for centuries, and certain people are incapable of existing without it. It took most of his life for Nietzsche to reach the conclusion that his statement “God is dead” was, in fact, a solution to society’s problems. After countless years of research, he decided that a loss of faith in a higher power could have the potential to be the most remarkable event to ever befall mankind. In one of his later writings, The Gay Science he wrote,
In fact, we philosophers and ‘free spirits’ feel ourselves irradiated as by a new dawn by the report that the ‘old God is dead’; our hearts overflow with gratitude, astonishment, presentiment and expectation. At last the horizon seems open once more, granting even that it is not bright; our ships can at last put out to sea in face of every danger; every hazard is again permitted to the discerner; the sea, our sea, again lies open before us; perhaps never before did such an ‘open sea’ exist. (The Gay Science, 343)
It is in this quote that Nietzsche expressed the idea that a universe without a God driving the lives of mankind to a common end is a universe where strong individuals can freely develop their own world views. This is simply because there would be no set of rules or guidelines constructed in a religious manner that could inflict guilt on a person (The Gay Science). Obviously, this idea could be misinterpreted to mean that mankind is permitted to commit crimes. Although that was not Nietzsche’s intention. Nietzsche blamed the theory of God for holding back mankind from their true desires and decided that with that idea gone, we would be able to live our lives to our fullest potential. Nietzsche foresaw the rise of atheism that would soon inhibit society. He did not construct his ideals in a negative sense, rather his works prove his attempt to aide mankind. He realized that many people need to believe in a higher power to protect them from the harshness of this world and he attempted to provide relief in his idea that mankind should not rely on a higher power for happiness. (Class Notes) Nietzsche offered us the idea that humans can individually create their own values. This would give a meaning to life just by living it. While Nietzsche referred to himself as an atheist, he acknowledged that his insight had only discredited the validity of believing in a higher power. Meaning, he believed that he had not disproved that a world beyond this could exist. In his book Human All Too Human many readers believe that he contradicts himself in saying “It is true, there could be a metaphysical world; the absolute possibility of it is hardly to be disputed” (Human, All Too Human, 15). Although, this quote most definitely follows his central idea. Nietzsche had never attempted to disprove that a higher power exists. Rather, he dedicated his entire career to justifying that belief in a higher power is pointless. Nietzsche thought that it would be a waste of time to follow through with things mankind does not truly want to do (Human, All Too Human). He also expressed his opinion that a world composed of individuals who do not believe in a higher power would be a much better one. What he meant by this was that there would be less sorrow and guilt. People would finally be allowed to live how they desire. (Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy)
In more modern terms, Friedrich Nietzsche was the creator of the trending term, “YOLO” (you only live once). The artist, Drake, coined this term in his song “The Motto” released in 2011 where he sang, “You only live once, that’s the motto ***** YOLO.” This short phrase simply implies that man should do what we want, when we want to because “you only live once.” This idea has quickly become the defining statement of our generation. Like Nietzsche, people have formed contrasting opinions on the YOLO lifestyle. Many believe it justifies reckless behavior and entitlement. During his time, Nietzsche’s beliefs garnered similar opinions. While his statement “God is dead” may have been ill received in the 19th century, our more modern times seem to agree with him. Even Nietzsche himself believed that he had come to early for people to understand his message. With the passing of a century, we can see a sudden shift in human reliance in God. It is interesting to note that in his book The Gay Science, Nietzsche states that we are the ones who killed God. God exists through the belief we allow and once that belief is gone, so is God (The Gay Science). What Nietzsche has offered is the idea that we can become our own Gods to fill the absence. There is danger in the absence of belief and Nietzsche recognized this. He developed the solution that we must not live in the past or future, rather in the present. Thus delving into the term YOLO. The main problem that the YOLO mindset faces is the two distinct ways it can be interpreted. The first being that there will be no consequences to our actions because we only get one life. This interpretation of YOLO seems to permit crime and stupidity. Those who interpret YOLO and Nietzsche’s ideas in this way understandably will disagree with it. The second interpretation of YOLO is the idea that we must live life to its fullest and experience all that we can because we only get one life. This interpretation coincides in a similar way to what Nietzsche had intended in his message. The mental health of Millennials and gen-Z kids has been on a steady decline. There has been a recent rise in depression and anxiety in teens and this is the leading cause of death in kids ages 13-18. Depression is statistically proven to be the 10th leading cause of death in all ages (Jowit). This sudden rise in mental health disorders must have something to do with that growth of atheism and decline in belief in a higher power. The sudden realization that life could be meaningless and nihilism could be our reality. Nietzsche’s ideas could act as a solution to this problem. We must learn not to dwell on the past or live for the future. We must adopt the idea that we can become our own gods and live individualistic lives.
Friedrich Nietzsche’s philosophical ideas have stunned humanity for over a century. Like all controversial topics, his statement “God is dead” was at first, not received well. People all developed their own interpretations of what he meant and could not comprehend the idea of living without religious beliefs (Keller). In our modern times, living without the belief in a higher power has become more common. People have become more accustomed with the idea of nihilism. Nietzsche’s idea that we can become our own gods will be incredibly beneficial to new generations as society progresses, especially with the rise in mental health problems. Humankind has embarked on a slow transition towards atheism ever since the World Wars. While the concept of God guarantees meaning to the lives we live, it also provides followers with guilt and anxieties that they should not have to feel. Nietzsche’s statement “God is dead,” was a bold attempt to gain the attention of mankind. He never denied an afterlife, he simply denied the value in pursuing a religious life. Ultimately, Nietzsche’s legacy has left us with the concept of YOLO, an idea that has infiltrated the minds of millennials and gen-Z kids since its birth in 2011.
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